Is a FedEx Waybill a Handshake or a Promise?

On January 14, 1998 I wrote a seminal article for GO INSIDE Magazine called — The Decline & Fall of FedEx — and in the 12 years since its original publication, that FedEx piece has generated more positive email than anything else I’ve ever written.  Having one article watched so much by so may people is both pleasing and numbing.


Fan mail for that article comes from disgruntled customers as well as past and current FedEx employees. 

Last Friday, I received the following email from Kim, and I reprint that letter here with permission:

Mr. Boles:

I happened to come across your article, The Decline and Fall of FedEx, while googling something else. Every FedEx employee should be required to read it. I am a 20+ year employee (courier) of FedEx, and I’m sorry to say I’ll join the other FedEx employees who’ve responded to your article by stating FedEx ain’t what it used to be. I have no doubt that your experiences were depicted accurately. I have seen this failure to deliver as promised increase a hundredfold in the past decade. Every company has failures; however, their response to failure tells you much about the quality of that company. Our response to failure is too often unacceptable.

I was fortunate to begin working for FedEx when it stood heads above the competition in virtually all aspects of the delivery business. I was genuinely proud to wear the uniform. I was proud to be part of a team of dedicated, caring individuals who treated each and every package as if it were their own. It’s unfortunate that employees who began their careers after the decline in service have no real concept of what ‘absolutely positively has to get there’ means. The stories I could tell of our FedExers going above and beyond! Now, sadly, most of the stories I know are of the failures, coverups, excuses, and lack of concern displayed by so many people wearing the uniform, including the managers. Management sets the tone, and they’ve been blowing too many sour notes of late.

Having been in the business for so many years (a decade at UPS prior to FedEx) I’ve come to the conclusion that entities that grow large are mostly unmanageable. Upper management is so consumed by pushing papers with pretty figures on them that they no longer even see the packages the figures represent. They wouldn’t know what a box was if they fell over one in their shiny Gucci shoes. Immediate frontline managers are focused on production production production to, almost, the exclusion of all else. Their formula of production=profit fails to account for poor service=loss of clientele. They seem to have forgotten something very basic: we pickup and deliver packages, we guarantee to provide superior service in doing so, and everything else is secondary to that goal.

Our new hires and younger employees think that doing the job the right way just takes too long. They want to look good on paper, and get the gold-star equivalent of ‘good boy’ on their production reports. Misdeliveries, late deliveries, damaged deliveries, non-deliveries just don’t count as part of their equation. Attempting to explain the meaning of superior service is often met with derision. One response I received was, “Rules are for fools and those who follow them”. Unfortunately, I see too many managers who hold the same opinion. They ignore poor service unless they are forced, in some way, to address the issue.

I am grateful I began my career when FedEx was a stellar organization. I know what it once was capable of doing. Perhaps someday it will find this excellence again. In the meantime, please let me apologize for the many bad experiences you have had with us. Stories such as yours unravel the uniform I was once so proud of wearing, one thread at a time.

Sincerely,

Kim

In that terrific letter, Kim explains to us — quite clearly — how all of American businesses have changed over the last two decades.  There used to be care for the job, now there is only loathing.

Where once we all tried to do our very best — most of us now just do enough to get by without getting fired so we can run home and play with our videogames and fall asleep surfing the internet.

The reason so many yearn for the old FedEx is because, at one time, it was The Golden Standard of Excellence in Business that anyone could taste, touch, and feel just by spending a little bit of money to send a package.

When it Absolutely, Positively, Has to Be There Overnight” — was the FedEx advertising catch-phrase that not only caught on, but became a mandate of behavior — and FedEx never failed to deliver on a promise that wasn’t a handshake, but rather, a waybill:

The Good Old Days of FedEx cannot return.  Competition is too great now,
automation has taken over for human decision-makers, and the world is
becoming smaller — danger to property is expanding and the viciousness
of threatening weather is exploding — and the raking of thin profit
margins means FedEx just saying afloat must be pleasing enough for us.

There are some of us, though, like Kim and me, and maybe even you, who
remember the real FedEx of 20 years ago that made you smile just
thinking about getting an overnight package or living the thrill of
sending a package that you knew — through the mystery of people and the
magic of challenging time and tide — would somehow absolutely,
positively, get there when promised.

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